- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

The Arlington Planetarium is your friendly, neighborhood space center. Tucked into the suburbs next to the Arlington Public Schools’ offices and Washington-Lee High School, the planetarium is just the right size to make the expansiveness of outer space seem within reach for schoolchildren.

During the day, the planetarium, which is operated by the Arlington Public Schools, serves as a learning lab for schools in Arlington County and nearby. On weekends and special dates, the public can observe the sky, see the stars and ask planetarium Director Jonathan Harmon anything from “Where is Ursa Major?” to “What is that blurry spot near Orion?”

Even in suburban Washington, where light pollution can crowd out the stars, a visit to the Arlington Planetarium brings space enthusiasts one step closer to objects light-years away.

“I enjoy sharing Saturn with folks,” Mr. Harmon says. “Sure, there are wonderful Hubble telescope images they can see. But even with a five-inch reflector scope, they can see it with their own eyes. It gives them a sense of ownership of the planets. It just tickles me to death to see them get a big grin on their face.”

The planetarium offers its “Just Imagine” multimedia program Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. This program, which changes its theme every few months, gets the audience thinking and imagining what goes on in space, such as envisioning Earth without a moon.

The first Monday of the month, the planetarium hosts its “Stars Tonight” program. The house was full in the small, domed theater when Mr. Harmon held February’s program.

The program shows visitors what can be seen in the sky that month. Mr. Harmon dissects the highlights of the winter sky, explaining what constellations are visible and what they represent.

“We’re seeing light that left a nebula 1,600 years ago,” he explains about one spot in the sky, “but in the life cycle of stars, 1,600 years is not all that long.”

Mr. Harmon maps out Taurus and the Big Dipper; explains why Sirius is the brightest star; talks about Titan, the largest moon of Saturn; and tells the story of Andromeda. The biggest “wow” from the crowd comes when he changes the projection on the planetarium roof to show what the sky looks like far away from an urban center. Seemingly, a million stars fill the screen.

Mr. Harmon intersperses poetry throughout the program, reciting passages from Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Frost and other writers waxing poetic about the stars.

Before heading outside for a hands- and eyes-on experience looking through a telescope, Mr. Harmon recalls the words of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Escape at Bedtime.”

The lights from the parlour and kitchen shone out

Through the blinds and the windows and bars;

And high overhead and all moving about,

There were thousands of millions of stars.

There ne’er were such thousands of leaves on a tree,

Nor of people in church or the Park,

As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me,

And that glittered and winked in the dark.

The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter and all,

And the star of the sailor, and Mars,

These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall

Would be half full of water and stars.

They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries,

And they soon had me packed into bed;

But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,

And the stars going round in my head.

When you go:

Location: Arlington Planetarium is at 1426 N. Quincy St. in Arlington.

Hours: Public programs include “Just Imagine” at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Sundays. “Stars Tonight” is held at 7:30 p.m. on the first Monday of the month. The next “Stars Tonight” programs will be tomorrow and April 3.

Admission: $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and children 12 and younger.

Parking: Free parking in lot.

More information: Call 703/228-6019 or visit www.arlington.k12.va.us/instruct/science/planetarium/

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